Art of Time: Jack Barker Treks to South Africa's Cedarbergs in Search of Art, and Discovers Works of Mystery and Magnificence Dating Back to the Stone Age. (South African Rock Art)

Article excerpt

I LOOKED DOWN AT THE RED DOTTED LINE ON THE HAND-DRAWN map. On a boulder, a footstep marked in white paint told me I was on the right track, but not how far I was along it.

I thought I was at Site 5 and, according to the flimsy, locally printed guidebook I'd bought in the morning, I should be looking at a quagga foal, a lean and hungry gemsbock, an odd little figure carrying something and a man with a hump. I looked back at the cliff: no. Back to the guidebook. `When you've finished your study of these remarkable walls, turn your attention to the left-hand part of the cave. Your eye will immediately be caught by this exceptionally clear and delightfully executed archer.' I turned my attention to my left. No archers. But as I looked I did start to see other shapes. There, indeed, were the ochres and reds of bushman art: trance figures, fat-bottom women with baobab legs, skinny hunters and horned animals. Sometimes clear, more often they were suspicions, evanescent images that faded into natural stains on the rock. But there was art here, even though it was nothing like the illustrations on my page.

I didn't mind. The search for art had given me an excuse to stop and soak up the natural beauty of the mountains. Under a brilliant blue sky, rugged ridges shouldered dry river valleys, shelving over a thin cover of succulent growth, small flowers bursting out on a distant memory of some long-fallen raindrop. Fifty metres to my left I spotted another painted footstep, glaring white on a rock. I turned the page for Site 6, and clambered over. Following the markers, I rounded a spur and found a white arrow indicating ... Site 5.

I turned back a page. There was the archer, clear as day. On the roof, a trance figure, bleeding from the nose, and a fight, a man falling. And there was the quagga, either staggering--newborn--or very badly drawn. It was a magical link between the vanished Bushman culture and the wild beauty of the present day.

Voyage of discovery

I was on the Sevilla Trail, 40 kilometres by dirt road from Clanwilliam--itself a two-hour highway drive north of Cape Town--guiding myself through the countryside with the help of a small, self-published guidebook, seeing some of South Africa's finest rock art on my own.

And that is what marked the experience as different. I've seen rock art when locals have shown me sites their parents had discovered. I've been guided around headline sites by professional guides, but I've never had the chance to explore an open-air rock gallery on my own. Already my mistakes had enabled me to identify new signs from the past: probably they hadn't been mentioned in the guidebook because they were too small, faint or poorly painted, but I'd found them for myself.

And the headline sites were all I could have hoped for. A fireside group, painted in black over the faint red of older figures, and a crowd scene, all heads turned towards the sky. Elephant and rhino, long extinct in the area, and zebra and eland, which are gradually being re-introduced. …